Always the bridesmaid and never the bride, Ananth Kumar was, at best, one of the builders of BJP in Karnataka; a power broker like Pramod Mahajan

Ananth Kumar (left) with L.K. Advani and ‘Vishwa Vani’ editor-in-chief Vishveshwar Bhat, who served as his office on special duty. (courtesy: Vishveshwar Bhat)

Union minister and Bangalore South MP Ananth Kumar’s premature demise at the age of 59 will hog the news headlines, at least in Karnataka, for the next few hours.

Adjectives will pour forth in a torrent from his colleagues, compatriots, commentators and constituents as they try to make sense of the brutality of the grim reaper.

That is as it should be.

Speaking uncritically of the dead is a useful insurance when you have just received an intimation of mortality.

So, it will be said that Ananth Kumar was a sizeable figure in Karnataka politics although his actual contribution, despite having represented one of the more “literate” constituencies six times, is hard to put a finger on.

Certainly, he was no lout like so many of his contemporaries.

So, it will be said that he was a Union minister on four different occasions, although again you will be hardpressed to name a single action he undertook that positively impacted the country, or the State.

But there is no question that like B.S. Yeddyurappa, Ananth Kumar was among those who played a stellar role in building the BJP in Karnataka—the only State in the South the Indian People’s Party has come to power.

So, the epithet of “supreme organiser” is well deserved.

Notwithstanding the vital gaps in his CV, his proximity to L.K. Advani ensured that his name automatically popped up as a “contender” whenever B.S. Yeddyurappa’s chair wobbled—or was made to wobble, usually by Ananth Kumar’s own men.

Or by his own men in the media.

In the end, his life’s dream to sit on the CM’s gaddi in Vidhana Soudha remained unfulfilled.

When the mining scam brought down Yeddyurappa, hopes soared. But the chance went to Jagadish Shettar and D.V. Sadananda Gowda, not Ananth Kumar.

That too is as it should be.

In reality, Yeddyurappa was, and is, the only pan-Karnataka BJP leader, even within the BJP. Ananth Kumar—a Brahmin with built-in defaults–was at best a factional leader, his utility to the party being of a substantially different nature.

His ability to build friendships across party lines (S.M. Krishna) and deal with money bags (Rajeev Chandrasekhar) eventually served Narendra Modi when he needed an affable minister to break the impasse in Parliament.

That role, of parliamentary affairs minister, Ananth Kumar served with far greater panache and polish than M. Venkaiah Naidu could muster, whom not just the Opposition but even the BJP’s own allies abhorred.

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All this is a roundabout way of saying that Ananth Kumar was all too human, like all of us, something we like to lose sight out of. But he had his colourful moments, too, which an uncritical media ignores in moments of sentimentality.

Astonishingly, or perhaps not so astonishingly given his eventual rise as a power broker a la Pramod Mahajan, Ananth Kumar features in one of the juicier scandals in 21st century India involving the 2G scam lynchpin, Niira Radia.

In Close Encounters with Niira Radia, the former MP and criminal lawyer R.K. Anand throws light on the “character and con games of the corporate lobbyist whose activities India’s power class”.

And Ananth Kumar figures prominently in one chapter.

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Niira Radia (right) with Atal Bihari Vajpayee meeting Sri Visvesha Teertha swamiji, one of the prime movers behind the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, of the Pejawar Mutt (courtesy Gauri Lankesh)

By R.K. ANAND

“During 1996-97, I used to get medicines for my wife from the United States and Niira Radia was always a great help making arrangement for the safe transport of these life-enhancing drugs through her client, KLM. Niira had become a sister to me and I began treating her as one.

“The links between us grew stronger when she shifted her residence to a farm house near mine. As a neighbour, her visits became even more frequent.

“We chatted on just about every subject. But underlining all our conversations was Niira’s emphasis on becoming the most successful businesswoman in India. She was driven by this motivation.

“It became obvious to me that she was going in for a big kill. What exactly that would be, I could not fathom. But it would be big or nothing at all. At that time I had no idea that she would spread her wings into the political arena to satisfy her craving for business and power.

“So it came as a shock to me when I discovered her, one day, when visiting her farmhouse, dancing closely with NDA minister Ananth Kumar to western ballroom music….

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“Niira always thought big. She was not satisfied with piddling assignments. Her ultimate ambition was to start her own airline. To achieve this target she needed the help of the new aviation minister, Ananth Kumar, who was a member of Parliament from Karnataka.

“No longer a stranger to the ways of Delhi and the art of cosying up to the high and mighty through a liberal use of contacts, name dropping, and invitations and parties, Niira had wasted no time in getting on the inside track with Ananth Kumar from his early days as minister.

“The BJP’s return to power in 1999 as well as Ananth Kumar’s regaining his former portfolio allowed her to continue to fly loftily in the aviation skies.

“She also had an added advantage. She knew more about the aviation industry than half of Ananth Kumar’s own top bureaucrats. Ananth Kumar, himself a neophyte, a rookie minister in the NDA government, found in Niira a good teacher about the intricacies, pitfalls and vicissitudes of the powerful aviation sector.

“Needless to say, he was also smitten by the femme fatale who was now so sure of her magic with men.

“She did not hide her closeness to him. Friends often saw them together at Sudesh Farm, Asola, in Delhi, where Niira was still living with Rao Dheeraj Singh – a former Sahara executive.

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“Niira had her sights set. At whatever the cost, she wanted to sell helicopters to the governments of Maharashtra and Karnataka, Ananth Kumar’s home-state. With his help, she managed to clinch the deal for the two state governments.

“The hefty commissions she received went into Niira’s London and Channel Island accounts, recalls her partner Singh.

“The next window of opportunity for Niira as she continued to pursue her dream of conquering the skies by becoming an airline magnate was the air show in Bangalore….

“Niira like a female version of Icarus, had already begun spreading her wings. She was determined to influence the Indian government to buy aircraft from Airbus.

“She knew from her deep knowledge of governmental decision-making in this area that a new acquisition policy for fleet enhancement and acquisition for Indian Airlines and Air India was in the offing.

“From Ananth Kumar she learned that the process would be fast-tracked for both the flagship domestic and international carriers…. So persistent was her interference in the affairs of Indian Airlines, that the manging director P.C. Sen objected to her meddling.

“Niira’s benefactor, Ananth Kumar, responded by removing Sen from that post.

“During the time that the aircraft acquisition policy was being changed Niira was a frequent visitor to Ananth Kumar’s official rsidence at 10, Prithviraj Road.

“According to intelligence reports, Niira and Ananth Kumar frequently travelled abroad.

“Ananth Kumar was actually a country bumpkin—a hayseed as the Americans put it—who learnt sophistication and speech and social graces from Niira. If the roles in Pygmalion had been reversed Ananth Kumar would have been Eliza Doolittle and Niira, Henry Higgins.

“The upshot of this courtship was that as aviation minister Ananth Kumar changed the acquisition policy to favour Airbus on the specious ground that Indian Airlines and Air India no longer needed large capacity long-range airplanes but rather only short capacity long-range ones—which the Boeing company was not manufacturing.

“The deal roughtly worth Rs 22,000 crore at a 10 per cent commission would work out to a windfall of Rs 220 crore for Niira.

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“But the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray. The BJP government headed by Atal Behari Vajpayee fell short of acquiring a confidence vote in Parliament and came tumbling down. New elections were called.

“Niira and her accomplices worked round the clock to ensure BJP’s return to power—especially return of Kumar to this portfolio as aviation minister. There was too much work to be done, pending contracts to be signed.

“Apart from the Airbus deal, one other pending project during this corresponding period was the construction of an up-to-date flying school. Singh was in charge of this project. The deal had been finalised between Radia and Ananth Kumar.

“Ananth Kumar’s role as minister was to ensure that the Airport Authority would provide the entire Mysore airfield at a nominal lease amount and obtain the mandatory clearance from the government of Karnataka…

“Ananth Kumar deputed no less a person than his own private secretary, Krishna Kumar, to help break the ice with local officialdom.

“Meanwhile, elections were in full swing and, according to Rao Dheeraj Singh, sacks of money were delivered in Bombay, Bangalore and Delhi by Niira to finance the re-election and comeback of Ananth Kumar to his former portfolio.

“The money was collected mostly by Ananth Kumar’s confidant and officer on special duty, one Diwakar.

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“Kumar made a comeback to his portfolio when the BJP returned to power after the election in a coalition called the NDA. But his tenure was short-lived and he could not deliver on the deals he had made with Niira.

“The problem was that his association with Niira had taken the colour of a scandal, and Ananth Kumar’s wife Tejaswini made a personal complaint to prime minister Vajpayee.

“The PM promptly re-assigned Ananth Kumar to the culture and youth affairs and sports ministry.”

(Excerpted from Close encounters with Niira Radia, by R.K. Anand, editor Inderjit Badhwar, Har-Anand publications, pp 326, Rs 595)